I’ve worked as a professional performer in the UK since the age of 12 – and my Arab heritage has pitted me against some pretty awful racial profiling in the industry. My first film job at the age of 14 – Steven Spielberg’s Munich – featured me as an Islamic terrorist’s son. Needless to say, that was an explosive introduction into showbusiness.
I’m now 26, and in my career, I’ve been sent nearing 30 scripts for which I’ve been asked to play terrorists on screen. Roles have varied from ones as meaty as “Suspicious Bearded Man on Tube” to “Muslim man who hides his bombs in a deceptive burka”.
When characters aren’t as explicitly linked to jihadi fundamentalism, most Arab roles I’ve read serve as antagonists to white heroes. BBC’s recently acclaimed The Night Manager reminded me of those difficulties in my own career – watching it, it felt obvious that Arab characters were placed where they were as mere “others,” narrative hurdles to complicate the journeys of its cast of white leads.
Early Oscars 2017 contenders
Early Oscars 2017 contenders
Martin Scorsese’s passion project since 1991 is yet to receive a release date but rumours abound that it will be out in time for the Oscars. Based on a novel of the same name by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, the story centres on two Jesuit missionaries sent to 17th century Japan to spread Christianity and find their mentor Once there, they endure brutal persecution at the time of Kakura Kirishitan (‘Hidden Christians’) following the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion. Silence sounds weighty, intense and full of hard-hitting promise.
2/18 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi director Ang Lee has narrowly missed out on a Best Picture win twice now but this adaptation of Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel could be the film that finally wins him some overdue glory. The cast includes Kristen Stewart and Vin Diesel with newcomer Joe Alwyn in the lead as 19-year-old soldier Billy, who is brought home for a victory tour after serving in Iraq. Told in flashbacks, the drama reveals the horror of what really happened to his squad in contrast to America’s flashy, patriotic perceptions. Out here 6 January.
3/18 A United Kingdom
Oyelowo plays Prince Seretse Khama, inaugural Botswana president from 1966 to 1980, in this follow-up to 2015’s Belle. Films about real life people often hold clout with the Academy when done well and with Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike playing Khama’s eventual wife Ruth Williams, A United Kingdom should pull in cinemagoers. Khama sparked a global stir when he married the white Londoner in the late Forties and the first pictures from the movie promise beautiful costumes and cinematography. A United Kingdom will open the London Film Festival before its general release on 25 November.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star as Mildred and Richard Loving in this historical drama about an interracial couple sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for the crime of getting married. Out here just in time for the Oscars on 3 February. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Loving earned positive reviews from critics when it competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and received a standing ovation for understated, strong performances.
5/18 Manchester by the Sea
One of the best scripts co-producer Matt Damon had ever read, this tragedy about an uncle who is forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies while trying to reconcile with his ex-wife stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and newcomer Lucas Hedges. It was bought at Sundance by Amazon for $10 million and arrives in the UK on 13 January.
6/18 Nocturnal Animals
Designer Tom Ford has cinematic strings to his bow, as proved with 2009’s Venice premiere The Single Man. He’s back in the chair for this drama-thriller starring Amy Adams as a remarried art gallery owner whose ex-husband’s violent new book begins to haunt her. Jake Gyllenhaal, Isla Fisher and Armie Hammer also star. Due in UK cinemas on 4 November.
7/18 The Light Between Oceans
Michael Fassbender stars alongside last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner Alicia Vikander in the big screen adaptation of ML Stedman’s 2012 novel of the same name. Derek Cianfrance is the man behind the camera for this story about a lighthouse keeper war veteran who rescues a baby girl with his wife after she washes up on an adrift rowboat. Then, in steps another Oscar winner, Rachel Weisz, as the woman who threatens to break their happy family apart. Out in the UK on 4 November - bring tissues.
8/18 American Pastoral
Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with this period adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral. The drama - set in the 60s - centres on a successful businessman (McGregor) whose missing daughter (Dakota Fanning) is accused of a violent bombing in post-war America. Out in the UK on 11 November.
9/18 Queen of Katwe
Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) is the director behind this long-awaited biopic of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. That Mutesi is played by 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o is reason enough to anticipate this Disney-produced film, out here 21 October.
10/18 Free Fire
Ben Wheatley’s new action thriller will close the London Film Festival. Set in Massachusetts in the late Seventies, Free Fire stars Oscar-winning Room actress Brie Larson in the lead alongside Cillian Murphy. It follows the ‘heart-stopping game of survival’ after shots are fired during a meeting between Justine, two Irishmen and two arms dealers who are selling them a stash of guns. Expect ‘blood, sweat and irony’ with bravura filmmaking from the High-Rise director. Reaches UK cinemas sometime in 2017.
Jim Jarmusch’s Palme d’Or contender sees Adam Driver take the lead as a bus driver poet from Paterson, New Jersey. Each night after work, he has dinner with his wife Laura before walking his dog (2016’s Palm Dog winner) to the bar for one beer. Then one day, a small disaster strikes.
12/18 The Founder
Michael Keaton has starred in the last two Best Picture winners Spotlight and Birdman. Here, he takes on the role of ruthless McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, with the film telling the story of the fast food empire’s origins. The ambitious entrepreneur on a journey to theme didn’t end so well for last year’s Joy, so it remains to be seen whether The Founder can live up to expectations as an Oscars contender. Out here 30 September.
The Weinstein Company
Clint Eastwood returns with Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, about the hero pilot who, in 2009, successfully landed his plane along the Hudson River after it was disabled by a flock of geese, saving all 155 crew and passengers. Tom Hanks takes the lead as Chesley Sullenberger in a biopic that sounds like it could tick a lot of Oscars boxes. Based on the autobiography Highest Duty, the thriller marks Eastwood’s first directorial effort since 2014’s American Sniper. Out 2 December.
Pablo Larrain directs Oscar winner Natalie Portman as late first lady and fashion icon Jacqueline Kennedy in what he has promised will not be another ‘classic biopic’. Set in the days immediately after John F Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, the film sparked great excitement among distributors after a seven-minute promo screened at Cannes. Release date unknown at this stage.
15/18 The Girl on the Train
The Help’s Tate Taylor is in the director’s chair for ‘this year’s Gone Girl’ about a troubled woman who becomes embroiled in a murder case after developing a fixation on a beautiful couple from her commuter train. Expect a film pulsating with creepy, voyeur vibes, a la Rear Window, based on Paula Hawkins’ bestselling thriller. Out in the UK on 7 October.
16/18 Florence Foster Jenkins
Meryl Streep has been widely praised for her turn as the 1940s New York heiress who couldn’t sing (and we mean really couldn’t sing) yet somehow became an opera singer with the help of her patient husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg). Directed by two-time Academy nominee Stephen Frears, the film proved heartwarming and inspiring upon its release earlier this year and was embraced by both film lovers and critics.
Rebecca Hall set Sundance ablaze in January, earning five-star reviews for ‘the performance of her career’ in Christine, about the news anchor who killed herself live on air in 1974 after suffering from depression. Yet to receive a UK release date, Christine arrives in US cinemas in October, with Antonio Campos also one to watch for directorial accolades come awards season.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jeremy Renner in a scene from 'Arrival'
When I expressed my frustrations to a prominent casting director, she encouraged me to “use my ethnicity as a playing card”, reassuring me that “white actors are f***ed in this day and age.” It’s incredible how many times I’ve been told to see racial profiling as a positive thing.
And it’s true that since 9/11, there are genuinely more roles for Arab actors than ever before. “Hurrah!” they say. “Rejoice in the bounteous work opportunities! Finally, Arabs have a place in Hollywood!” Not centre-screen, of course, but on the faceless periphery, clutching a prop detonator while a famous white man acts his ass off and earns an Oscar in the process.
While frustrating for Arab actors struggling to forge a name in an unforgiving industry, there’s an even more critical issue at hand here: namely, the fact that nearly zero Arab and Muslim identities are portrayed three-dimensionally on screen. It’s depressingly telling that American Sniper is one of the highest-grossing hits in film history – a box office earning in excess of $500m in a film where white man Bradley Cooper kills unnamed Arab actors for over two hours.
Stories onscreen have the rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters in audiences across the world, so leaving out Arab and Muslim voices in such a context of global Islamophobia is particularly damaging. With masterful directors, sublime works like Moonlight happen; now the story of gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto has become that much more relatable and mainstream. It is my genuine belief that if the TV and film industry had been more diligent in representing Arab characters – with all our humane, complex, intersectional three-dimensionality – xenophobia would not be as pandemic as it is today.
And hence I pray that La La Land doesn’t clean up at the Oscars (as at the BAFTAs). For this would be a sign that the industry prioritises the celebration of itself first of all, self-indulgently rejoicing in its own nostalgic - and white – mythology.
Moonlight NEEDS to win Best Picture. Not only because it is a cinematic feat that is to La La Land what Frida Kahlo is to paint-by-numbers, but because it sends an urgent message. A message that we’re ready to empathise with any story, no matter how far away they are from us, and how much they defy our systemic misconceptions.
The UK industry, in particular, must similarly do away with its obsession with period dramas. Now is not a time to escape into the “bygone days” of a white imperialist Britain, but to look outwards at the contemporary world, portraying minorities in a way that helps to dispel social prejudices and bring communities closer together.
As an Arab person living in the West today, I feel every Islamophobic utterance by Trump and Le Pen – or Theresa May’s silent apologism – as a personal, frightening blow. Hollywood should not be complicit as well. More than ever before, we need the cinema screen to do its unique job: to illuminate ignored identities, and to challenge the ideas that prejudice and politics would have us believe.